Oil Portrait with Zorn Colour Palette by artist Damian Osborne
Oil Portrait of Rohan using the Zorn Colour Palette.


Live Portrait Demonstration with the Zorn Colour Palette


I gave a live portrait demonstration with the Zorn colour palette at the Blaauwberg Art Society in Cape Town. The model was my friend Rohan and the duration of the demo was about an hour and 20 minutes.

It was quite intense giving a demo lesson to a room full of people, especially as I was trying to create a near enough likeness of Rohan in a really short time. As well as speak my way through the process.

I sort of felt like one of those cooking show hosts who have to concentrate on what they’re cooking and on what they are saying to the camera at the same time. I certainly didn’t run out of things to say, but found it tricky to talk while painting, and I had to keep reminding myself that time was short and I had better do more painting than talking if I was to produce an adequate piece.

And so, I learnt quite a lot. Trying to balance my focus, answering questions, and painting in front of an audience helped my confidence immensely.


Setting up for the Zorn Colour Palette Demo
Setting up for the Zorn Colour Palette Demo. Got my four colours and my glass of whisky at the ready.

Why use the Zorn colour palette?

Anders Zorn was a very famous and successful Swedish painter during his own lifetime (1860 – 1920), who often utilized a limited colour palette in many of his portraits, nudes and sometimes landscapes.

I decided to do a portrait demonstration with the Zorn colour palette because it is a very useful exercise, especially for ‘beginner artists’. I should rather say that it is a wonderful exercise for any artist, because the simplified colour palette has many edifying benefits.

By limiting the colours to just four; namely Ivory Black, Titanium White (or Flake White), Cadmium Red (or Vermillion) and Yellow Ochre, it forces the artist to:

  • Concentrate more on tonal value, drawing and composition
  • Achieve greater colour balance and harmony
  • Think more in terms of warm or cool colours to achieve contrast
  • Use higher chroma and muted (greyed) colours more effectively
  • Become more adept at colour mixing rather than using pure colour straight from the tube

Making a Zorn colour palette chart

Making colour charts is a tedious but very useful exercise. You can learn a lot about colour mixing and create your own colour notes. Learning colour charts from books etc is usually a total waste of time. You have to do it yourself.

Here’s a Zorn colour palette chart that I made. It’s amazing the range of colours you get from just four tubes of paint. It took me a long time to paint this board out, being careful not to contaminate my colours.

It starts with pure yellow ochre, then going left to right, gradually adding higher ratios of red until you have pure red. Then adding more black until you have pure black. Then more yellow etc. Going down is increasing ratios of white until you have a tint of 5%. Then at the lower half of the chart, I added a trace of the colour that was not included in the top section using the same system.


Zorn colour palette chart
Here is the Zorn colour palette chart that I made.

Starting the portrait

Usually I tone my canvases or boards or use an imprimatura (a transparent stain of earthy colour) before the painting begins, but I discovered that the Zorn colour palette seemed to benefit more from painting directly onto a white ground. I found that it gave the colours a bit more vibrancy this way, as it’s easy to create quite dull colours with this palette.

For this demonstration, I decided to paint Rohan’s side profile. I started with a basic construction drawing of his head with vine charcoal, borrowing from the Andrew Loomis Method which simplifies the head into basic shapes.

It started off looking a little robotic, but I pressed on, trying to get my basic planes right. The drawing in charcoal took me about 15 minutes all the while talking about my process. I think it’s important not to rush this stage, as getting the basic proportions correct here can save a lot of time later.

Drawing is really important and I like to think of drawing as really just an extension of painting. I also think of my brush strokes as likened to the cross-hatching of a drawing, thereby considering the length and direction of each brush stroke.

Drawing or painting from life is also crucial as it trains the eye to see in a three dimensional way, rather than relying on the flatness of a photograph. I periodically close my eyes slightly so that I can simplify the values and the basic shapes while working.


Starting the head off with charcoal using the Loomis method
Starting the head off with charcoal using the Loomis method.


Standing in front of class
Finishing off the charcoal drawing.

Painting the darn portrait

Once I was OK with the charcoal sketch, I asked Rohan to quickly spray it with fixative outside while I answered questions and cracked some dumb jokes.

Before making a muddied mess of everything, I first squeezed out my colours onto my palette, creating some ready-to-go colour mixes, including warms and cools, and a kind of colour value scale of varying degrees of white.

I mixed some black with the cadmium red and a little yellow ochre to create a warm brown. I also mixed a medium of stand oil and genuine turps to improve the flow of the paint. With this brown, I blocked-in the basic shadow shapes in a broad, general fashion.

Using a fairly large filbert (I think I only used three brushes for this whole demo as I knew I’d have to clean them later), I painted in the mid tones with an orangey mix of red and yellow and cooled down the mixes by adding more white on my palette.

White with a little red and a touch of black makes a lovely violet colour. For the cooler areas of the face, such as beneath the brow and the eye sockets, I created an olivey green with black and yellow ochre. Ivory black is quite a cool, bluish black, and when mixed with white, acts as a ‘blue’. I made a nice warm creamy colour using the white mixed with a little yellow ochre for the lighter areas.


Blocking in the colour using the Zorn colour palette
Blocking in the colour.


Model sitting for portrait
Rohan had a bright light shining on the side of his face.


Generally the thinner-skinned, bonier parts of the head are cooler with more of a blue/green grey mix. The fleshier parts are generally warmer in colour with more reds/yellows.

I used a small round bristle brush for the finer details. I tried to make sure my brushstrokes always followed the direction of the forms.


Zorn colour palette, painting from life
Times up, painting from life. This is how far I got.

Conclusion on using the Zorn colour palette

The Zorn colour palette was quite tricky for me at first as I’m not generally a direct painter and prefer painting in many layers. It was easy in the beginning to make a dull mess of my paintings.

But through practice, I began to get a feel for it. I fell in love with the subtlety of the tone and the balance of the colour harmony. It became really easy.

It was important to get my colour mixes ready-to-go on my palette before painting so that I could plan ahead. And once I had a colour down on the canvas, to refrain from blending the hell out it. Some beautiful colours can be achieved if you resist the urge to blend them all to grey.

So that’s where drawing and confident brush strokes are key, and understanding the form. I feel like I still have a long way to go, but using a limited palette has been a very satisfying experience.

Of course, I didn’t quite finish Rohan’s portrait in the allocated time, so I took it home and completed it. The audience seemed fairly impressed though and I received an overwhelming amount of praise. I left the hall feeling proud and smiling broadly, my first teaching demo done and dusted. Thanks to Janine for carrying all my gear and letting me talk her ear off on the way home.


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